The Yoga Class

by Lisette Surette

We found him in a small, run-down house in the woods. He had not had anything to eat in eight days. There was no food, no heat, and the water pipes had frozen. He had begun vomiting black bile two days before. Finally, when he thought he was going to die, he put on all his clothes and began walking in the snow, looking for a place where he could call us.

It was like receiving a call from a ghost. I was convinced that my son had been dead for months already.

We took him to the hospital, despite protests. His eyes were sunken, his skin yellow with jaundice. I tried hard to reconcile this wild-eyed young man with my chubby-cheeked toddler from what seemed like just a few years ago. How could this be my son? “His liver has begun to fail,” the doctor said.

A police officer at the hospital recognized him and knew there was a warrant out for his arrest. In the hospital parking lot, several police vehicles surrounded my car and apprehended my son. He was sent to prison, where he stayed for a couple of weeks while the legal system churned away. 

At the courthouse, we were given a choice: You can take him or he will stay in jail pending a trial. We were so shocked at the circumstances in which we had found him that we said yes. Maybe he has learned a lesson this time, we thought. Maybe he is scared enough. Maybe this will be the last time. Maybe ...

One week before, I had graduated from Kripalu Yoga Teacher Training. I came out of it determined to use yoga to help people, as I had experienced firsthand the healing powers of this ancient practice. I felt that I had learned to accept things the way they are, rather than wanting them to be different. Wanting something other than what is only leads to increased suffering. I got that. 

So there he was at our house, bored out of his mind. “Will you teach me a yoga class?” he asked.

I had not taught since leaving Kripalu, but I had committed to teaching anyone who asked for help. This was not the yoga student that I wanted, but it was the yoga student that I had. I felt as though the universe was chiding me, “You think you have the guts to teach yoga and meditation to people in crisis? Here is your final exam.” I looked at my son, remembered my commitment, and said yes. This would be my first-ever yoga class.

I told myself, This young man before you is your student today, so this is a no-judgment zone. For one hour, he will be your student, not your son. I set an intention to teach and not judge. A yoga teacher shows compassion to her students, no matter what.

And so we began. I guided him through some basic Sun Salutations and postures. I explained why we do certain things, why we breathe a certain way. After about 10 minutes, he said, “I need to take this shirt off. It smells like jail.” He peeled off his T-shirt, exposing ugly homemade tattoos, the largest one in huge uneven lettering across his entire chest: SELFMADE. He smelled of jail and sweat, his hair was unwashed. “No matter what,” I heard in my head. I pushed back judgment and blame, I tried to be loving and compassionate to this soul in need.

At the end, I had him lie in Savasana. When it was over and he sat up, I explained to him what “namaste” means, and that you hear this word a lot in yoga. I told him that it means “the light in me sees and recognizes the light in you.”

He stared at me for a long time, as if trying to reconcile the person I was now with the mother who had doled out curfews and discipline for most of his life, the mother who could not help him and who had sent him away. His eyes softened and welled up. He hugged me for a long, long time. It had been years since I had felt any kind of loving expression from my son. 

The transformative power of yoga had given me back my son for one hour. I remember it so well. I still hold on to it. 

Lisette Surette is a 500-Hour Kripalu Yoga teacher. The former chief interpreter for the province of New Brunswick, she has 23 years of experience as an interpreter working at provincial, national and international conferences.

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